I was reading a reflection on the inauguration by Chancellor Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary, when I encountered the following observation.
Our new president, more than many others, seems to have a pragmatic sense of limitation built into his exultant rhetoric. The master of “Yes, we can!” has read his Reinhold Niebuhr.
Niebuhr is probably the greatest American theologian. There are some Calvinists who will argue for Jonathan Edwards, and you could make a case that since Paul Tillich wrote most of his best theology after he came to the United States from Germany, he might claim first place. But as much as I love Tillich, my vote goes to Niebuhr. It’s not just that he is a great theologian; his perspective is in many ways uniquely shapes by his experience in the United States. And his insights speak with special depth to our national soul. But even beyond his theology, Niebuhr might also be the greatest American political philosopher.
Reading Reinhold Niebuhr used to be expected of anyone with serious political aspirations, but in recent decades as our politics have become increasingly polarized, few people want to spend time reflecting on shades of gray or contemplating the ways in which self-interest corrupts even our highest ideals.
I did a quick internet search and came up with several references to Obama and Niebuhr. David Brooks heard of Obama’s interest in Niebuhr and asked him about it. “I love him.” Obama answered. “He’s one of my favorite philosophers.”
Brooks asked him what central point he took away from his reading of Niebuhr. Obama answered, “I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”
It would be a wonderful thing for our nation and our world if the world view of our government were shaped by the “Christian Realism” that Niebuhr advocated and President Obama seems to endorse.